Sunday, October 04, 2009

about Egon Schiele

This month's lecture is about Egon Schiele's expressionist pictures and their relation to ideas of the avant garde in early twentieth century central europe.

"Why must you write these appalling adumbrations?" someone might say. It's a complicated issue. Mainly I wanted not to think any more about Egon Schiele. What interested me in the subject is:

1. that it can be shown that a good deal of the apparently "inexpressible" content of expressionist works is only reasonably rather than absolutely inexpressible, i.e. it certainly can be expressed, if only in overly complicated, tangled prose.

2. the way pictorial modernism works, for example in Schiele, is illuminating with respect to how political or scientific modernism works, for example in Freud.

Maybe the person asking the first question would also want to say some things about Karl Popper's popular theory of science. I doubt Popper would sign any of these speculations off. We are already exercising taste more than science in identifying the dominant motifs in Schiele's work: abstraction, distorted lines and sex. Relating these motifs to theories put forward, not by Schiele, but by his contemporaries, is to indulge speculation more, and more imprudently.

Notes on Schiele:

1. Artists have always been interested in depicting relations of power. In Schiele's pictures social relations, even at the level of private life, are hardly shown. There are only the traces or imprints of social relations on atomised figures. The conformation of the bodies of Schiele's figures, their few scraps of underwear, and perhaps their hairstyles, seem to be charged with an obscure sociological, even physiological importance. I don't believe Schiele was any less interested in relations of power than his predecessors. In Schiele's pictures, I would suggest, power only attains its proper grandeur, is only really power, and is only of interest, when it operates abstractly. Consequently, Austria-Hungary's hundreds of cavalry officers must have seemed to be only a cheap imitation of power, and of no interest. Likewise the giant banks. In a particular theory of the avant garde, developed by Wassily Kandinsky, real political relations are subsumed by ideal relations. From this it follows that the operative ideal political relations are purely abstract. The world, according to this point of view, coheres as a "spiritual" whole. An image of a tart, paid to undress in a rented room, expresses the inner workings of this world no more or less well than a microscopic slide isolating tuberculosis bacteria.

2. The implicit theory of the avant garde already had an invented "upper" and "lower" section, corresponding to what individual consciousness had or had not yet "comprehended", before Freud's invention of similar agencies hemming consciousness in: the superego and id. Schiele's distorted, nervous lines develop the sort of ambiguities developed in Freud's analyses of dreams. Schiele is drawing at his desk, perhaps, and the lines are simultaneously, or alternately, "channeling" the "upper section" or social superego, and dissimulating against it, and perhaps also counterfeiting this imaginary "upper section", for the benefit of his putative bourgeois patrons, no doubt confined to the "lower section."

3. The purported reality of the "upper" and "lower" sections makes sex ambiguous. As an activity of individual interest, it should be, according to Vygotsky's arguments, productive of knowledge at the individual level. Hence it should be attached to the "upper section". But it is, nevertheless, the means by which the personnel occupying the "lower section" are really reproduced. Very mysterious.

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